The tragic death by suicide of Alabama mayor, business leader, and Baptist pastor, F.L. Copeland became a national focus last week when LGBTQ Nation, followed by Fox News, broke the story. Sadly, it is the perfect injustice to incite public outrage on many fronts: the complex tragedy of emotional distress among those who identify as transgender, the lived experience of the transgender subculture, and the intersection of these with Christianity.
For many, the outrage is motivated by protecting and affirming those who identify as transgender. For others, there is anger at the perversion and lack of integrity of Christian leadership through sexual immorality. However, I want to caution against reducing this heart-wrenching situation to either of these perspectives. Any suicide is a tragedy, and Copeland’s death should cause followers of Jesus to pause.
Shouldn’t there have been a Christian setting in which Copeland could disclose his transgender feelings (including the despair that ultimately led to suicide), better understand them, and ultimately find peace and congruency as a biological man?
I’m hoping that news of his death transcends the polarities of popular discourse to see the humanity of a man who was struggling beneath the weight of feelings he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, embrace. Churches are among the only refuges of escape and peace from LGBT identities and culture. Public shaming and condemnation will never help people working through these feelings. The solution for people facing this struggle is about radical honesty with trusted friends, counselors, and therapists to find congruence. The stress of a dual life, especially while married, pastoring, and serving as a civic leader, must have been unbearable.
Oversimplifying the causes of depression among LGBTs by pointing primarily to social stigma is a harmful approach that limits care. Despite significant nondiscrimination gains socially in the U.S., it remains that LGBT-identifying people experience higher rates of mental health disorders than most Americans. By over-emphasizing social stigma rather than psychological health issues, thousands of LGBT-identifying people are being led to believe their only hope is societal change. Yet, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), “It is estimated that nearly 90% of people worldwide who die by suicide have a mental illness. Only about half of people who die by suicide in the U.S. are actually diagnosed.”
But in the case of Copeland, there is more to consider. The transgender experience is one of inner turmoil, where one’s own body feels foreign. Imagine not knowing whether you are a man or a woman in today’s culture. “Transgender individuals are nearly four times as likely as cisgender individuals (people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex) to experience a mental health condition.” This report referenced by NAMI indicates that within a study of 10,270 transgender-identifying patients, 58% had at least one psychiatric diagnosis, most commonly major depressive disorder.
We should acknowledge the despair Copeland was experiencing after 1819News confronted him with their exposé. My friends who once identified as transgender describe incredible frustration and pain in the conflict between one’s body and psyche. To prepare for this article, I spoke with my friends Ted Halley and Billy Burleigh, two men who underwent invasive surgeries to live as women but, through their faith, have desisted from transgender identity. Ted grew up just twenty miles outside Smith Station and lives in Alabama.
“All through my life, I suffered in the closet with off-and-on episodes of cross-dressing [until finally choosing to identify fully as a woman.] I know that this gentleman had an extreme dichotomy going on — to take your life. Like this man, I was at the end of my rope. But I praise God that I had an amazing encounter with God, and he rescued me. Even as a Christian, there was no one to talk to about this. When I was 14, I prayed to be a girl. Who do you talk to? The Church wasn’t open to it, sadly. I think this is what this man encountered. People just don’t understand it. We have a huge wave of people leaving this. I don’t say this lightly — the church is ill-equipped to handle this. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to have mercy. We need to be willing to extend the hand of grace. We need to walk alongside people.”
“Ted and I are both here attesting that it took seeking God to find peace, happiness, and joy. If we embrace this lifestyle and seek security in 'the world,' eventually, 'the world' will leave us empty. No matter how far down the road we go on the wrong path — look, I went 7 years with a number of surgeries, I’m hacked up! At the end of 7 years, I had a choice to make, but I called out to God. No matter how far down the road we go, God always gives us the opportunity to turn around.”
Jesus Christ taught that all people have value. Repeatedly, Jesus cautions against objectifying and demeaning others for personal gain (e.g., Matthew 5:22-26). What did 1819News.com stand to gain by publicly exposing Copeland against his requests? Though their disclosure brought his situation to light and forced Copeland to face his moral crisis, the 1819News exposé is a symptom of the media’s callousness. I believe their articles crossed ethical lines. Should Copeland have been made accountable? Yes, but not in the public news cycle.
Meanwhile, according to their articles, Copeland did not appreciate the religious implications of his actions and apparently had no Christian oversight. These matters point to a broader issue within churches, including embracing biblical orthodoxy and the steady influence of sexual immorality among congregations. Above all, however, Copeland likely had no Christian setting to address his feelings safely.
As I have written elsewhere, many people are leaving LGBT identities and culture to follow Christ. Still, fewer are finding churches offering them care and discipleship in Christian identity. Amidst accusations of so-called “conversion therapy” and the rising influence of LGBT-affirming messages coming from leading national pastors, the pathway of repentance and conversion to the Christian faith is challenging for those seeking to surrender to Jesus wholeheartedly. F.L. Copeland’s suicide speaks to these challenges. It releases a clarion call to Christians to redirect their outrage against transgenderism to see the people struggling behind the persona.
Please pray for Copeland’s family and offer them the privacy we would all wish during this incredibly painful tragedy.
Elizabeth Woning is co-founder of the CHANGED Movement, an international network of men and women who have left the LGBT subculture and identity to follow Jesus. She earned her master’s degree from a PCUSA seminary while openly lesbian and ministered within the LGBT-affirming church movement. A radical revelation of Jesus led her to a different path. Today, she is a licensed pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, California, where she lives with her husband, Doug.